The metaphor is appealing, if you’re into books and into love: the first kiss of the new idea, the careening, breathless first draft of falling in love. And then the hard part – the commitment, the work of making it work, the attention to detail. (For example: you say ominously, I think we need to talk, and having learned the hard lessons of your plunging blood sugar levels he says, Absolutely, but have a banana first.)
And then sometimes you are committed, you really are; you spend your days untangling the tangles and you can see how great this thing could be if you just knew how to do it, if you were both just a little better. It’s complicated but also joyful and you think that this is all you want. Until! (Dun dun DUN): One day you’re at a party and Someone You’ve Never Seen Before walks in, drink in hand, looks around – looks at you. Your knees go weak. You know you shouldn’t hold his gaze, you shouldn’t think the things you’re thinking, but you can’t look away and everything that could happen is exploding in your mind at once. When he comes over and says hi all you can say is oh no because you’re done for. Yes, you’ve got a contract and a deadline, but you have to write this book. You meet furtively, keeping the Book Under Contract open on your screen, telling yourself (and telling the New Idea) that you’re going to go back to the Book Under Contract in ten minutes, fifteen, an hour, tomorrow. But day after day, you can’t stay away from the New Idea.
So, OK, I was going to write about the Brilliant!New!Idea! that sometimes just takes off and takes you with it, and then I was going to write about falling in love, and I was going to say ha ha they’re SORT OF ALIKE, get it? which lots of people have said before, including me, but in the end I seem to have likened it to having an affair, which is maybe less charming. Oh well.
Because when I thought about falling in love, the first thing that came to mind was meeting G when we were seventeen. Immediately the metaphor seemed insufficient and fell apart. Having a new idea for a book is not actually like falling in love.
I don’t want to be confusing: when I talk about falling in love with G, I’m not talking about romance or sex, but I still think falling in love is the best way to put it because that’s how it felt, and more than twenty years later I’m still in free-fall.
First impressions – she had long brown hair and a beautiful voice, whether singing or speaking (although I didn’t know about the singing until later) and everything about her was somehow bigger and brighter than what everyone else had. We batted around her like moths. Her smile was the spotlight we wanted to be in, and her laugh was this unrestrained bright burst that I adored. She was funny in a completely loopy and original way. I – who considered myself at the grand old age of seventeen a sort of master of running away – wanted to run away with her.
When she called me on the phone I was so happy. It didn’t occur to me until later that we’d spent half the conversation talking about J., my best friend since childhood. When he told me that she’d asked him on a date, I was crushed. I realized she had called not to talk to me but to talk about him – and maybe to make sure that our relationship was purely platonic, which was something she’d asked about, I now remembered. We weren’t going to be real friends after all, I thought sadly. I would be her boyfriend’s best friend and she would be my best friend’s girlfriend. That wasn’t how it turned out, though.
(Years later, all of us lying on the floor of his very old house in the south of Japan, they talked through some of what had gone wrong between them and I talked at length about How I Saw It. He laughed dryly and said, If you have so much to say about our relationship, I can’t imagine what you’re like when you’re actually involved. But I’d never cared so much about any of my own love affairs, and I never gave any thought to what had gone wrong there).
They became a couple and I became the firmly affixed third wheel. It felt surprisingly natural, like a tricycle. She would turn up at the café where I worked, hair swishing down her back, talking like a gangster out the side of her mouth and smoking her pen, or pretending to fall down the escalator in slow motion, making me laugh ‘til I cried. She wrote me notes in class. You are the most valiant girl I have ever known. I didn’t want to sleep with her or take her away from J, but it still seems right to say I was in love.
For a few years the three of us lived together, took classes together, worked at the same restaurant.
She left first.
She cut off her long hair and traveled around the world. We wrote epic love letters. Once, to make J laugh, I fastened the braids she’d left behind to my own hair and went prancing out into the kitchen. He did laugh, in a horrified sort of way, and then one of the braids fell off and came partly undone and we ended up kneeling on the kitchen floor, laughing and crying, our hands in her hair, trying to braid it back together. Is that weird? OK, kind of. But it was love.
The thing with being young is that it comes naturally – that feeling of endless possibility, of being larger than life – but I still associate that feeling with G. more than with youth. In both of our lives, after a whole lot of gallivanting around, sometimes together and sometimes apart, Capital-R-Reality caught up and squeezed out some of that feeling of possibility. Now we are responsible for and to other people, most particularly our children, and we are not on the brink of adulthood anymore but nested in what we can only hope is the middle of it, hemmed in by the choices we’ve made, disappointment and fear and the needs of others taking up so much space. I feel all of this squeezing in on me, and I watch it squeezing her too, more tightly and cruelly than it does me.
But: she is still bigger and brighter somehow than everything around her, I still feel like a moth to her flame, her smile is still the spotlight I want to live in and I love nothing more than her laugh. I still want to run away with her. Maybe what I mean is that she did and does inspire, she makes me feel my life could still be wider, stranger, more thrilling and surprising, everything still possible after all, if she’s there too.
So, fine, the New!Idea! metaphor didn’t really work, because L’Amour is so much bigger than that. If there is a connection in my mind, it’s only that these are the constants in my life: the thrill of thinking up stories and the work of making them work, and a few bright loves that endure, unfading no matter what. I can’t think what else has any real value to me.